Viewing Relationship Education through the Lens of Social Poverty

By Alan J. Hawkins

The Bottom-line First. I have waited anxiously for Sarah Halpern-Meekin’s new book, Social Poverty, since I first heard her describe the study and writing project three years ago. I wasn’t disappointed. Her analysis of low-income parents’ lives and their experiences trying to strengthen their relationships for the sake of their children provides a clearer lens with which to view relationship education and federal policies to help low-income couples strengthen their relationships.

Sarah Halpern’s new book, Social Poverty; Low-income Parents and the Struggle for Family and Community Ties,[1] explores three interrelated issues. First, it explores the prosaic elements of low-income, unmarried parents’ lives, showing how the daily challenges of navigating three crucial life course transitions at once – establishing young adult identities, nurturing romantic relationships, and becoming parents – combine to create a heavy psychological, social, and economic lift for these individuals. The lives of low-income, unmarried couples have received a good deal of academic attention over the past 20 years. But Halpern-Meekins’ value-added contribution in Social Poverty is illuminating by showing how trying to make these life course transitions simultaneously undermines their abilities to do each one of them successfully.

The second element of the book is essentially an implementation study of the Family Expectations program in Oklahoma City. Family Expectations is one of the premier relationship education programs for lower income couples that has been funded by the Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education federal policy initiative that begun under the Bush administration in the mid-2000s. Family Expectations has been one of the most successful programs in terms of longevity, recruitment and retention, and demonstrated positive impact on the participants. Halpern-Meekin takes us inside the nuts and bolts of the program to sense how the couples themselves experience it, from their enrollment visit with its welcoming, male-friendly, professional atmosphere, to the educational sessions with its couple-cozy recliner love seats and engaging curriculum, to the positive relationships with their family support coordinators who meet with each enrolled couple regularly to assess their current needs, connect them to other valuable community services, and reinforce the curriculum principles being taught.

Halpern-Meekin probes deeply into why these unmarried couples,[2] with their hectic and complex lives, signed up for Family Expectations. The primary reason for most of the couples was a hope to create a healthier relationship to provide the right environment to raise their children. Only one of the 31 couples Halpern-Meekin interviewed had experienced a stable, two-parent family growing up and most grew up in chaotic and even abusive family environments. Not surprisingly, they brought unhealthy communication and problem-solving patterns into the relationship making it even harder to deal with the daily stresses of their lives. Well aware of the family instability all around them (and for many, in their own past) and afraid of the flaws and ambiguity in their own fragile relationships, they were hoping for some help to fix their poor communication skills to avoid the toxic conflict that they knew could harm their children.

A second driving reason for a handful of couples was to find friends and peers who were going through the same experiences, underlying the challenges of social isolation and lack of social support these couples faced. And a few couples indicated that Family Expectations was a last-ditch effort to save their relationship – again for the sake of their children. In contrast to a larger body of research on these fragile families that highlights the weak connections these unplanned parents have to each other, most of the couples who attended Family Expectations were strongly bonded and clearly wanted their troubled relationships to succeed.

Halpern-Meekin finds that the couples embraced the lessons and skills taught in Family Expectations, even as they were candid about struggles to employ them consistently in their relationship conflicts. The “time-out” skill appeared to be the most valuable tool they gained, learning how to stop an escalating conflict before it got too damaging, calling a time out to disengage, then revisiting the issue later when they had cooled down. This enhanced a feeling of physical and emotional safety in the relationship. Halpern-Meekin points out how these small shifts in micro-level interactions “can fundamentally change the couple’s day-to-day experience of their relationship—whether it is primarily a source of comfort or conflict” (p. 167).

In a later round of follow-up interviews, Halpern-Meekin reports that two-thirds of the couples tell her that Family Expectations has improved their relationship. She summarizes: “Although there are stories of amazing transformations, with couples turning around damaged, unstable relationships, this is not the typical outcome. Rather, the average experience is one of a couple making smaller changes, being a little slower to anger, a little quicker to let trivial matters go, and a little more sure that this is the kind of relationship they want to show their children, one that could be happy and lasting” (p. 173).

The third element of the book speaks to an essential policy question of how these kinds of programs might be effective for low-income unmarried (and married) parents. Here, she doubles down on her argument that we need to view these relationship-strengthening educational programs and couples’ responses to them through the lens of social poverty. Halpern-Meekin argues that social poverty – the lack of close and trusted relationships one can rely on – is a distinct phenomenon worthy of serious attention, not just as an outcome of economic poverty. “Financial poverty matters, without a doubt,” she acknowledges. “However, to assert that in the presence of financial poverty no other issue can or should receive priority fails to respect the wishes, plans, and needs of low-income people” (p. 208).

Two other sociologists have done in-depth studies of low-income couples participating in relationship-strengthening educational programs.[3] Both of them acknowledge that the participants enjoyed the programs and say they benefitted from them, but both distance themselves from the participants’ experiences to critique the rationale and utility of the policy that supports them. For instance, Jennifer Randles sees that participants in these programs overwhelmingly valued the knowledge and skills they learned in the programs, believing they gave them a greater sense of agency or control to achieve their relationship aspirations, even knowing the obstacles they faced due to their stressful lives. But Randles worries that such hope is false, insensitive, and potentially harmful because their efforts to strengthen their relationships will be overwhelmed by the harshness of economic poverty, essentially asserting a threshold below which sustained romantic relationships are hopeless. (I did a deeper critique of this important book here.)

But Randles’ only lens for evaluating the wisdom of this policy initiative is economic. Halpern-Meekin’s in-depth understanding of these couples’ lives allows her to add the lens of social poverty to help us understand why stressed and struggling couples are drawn to these programs and, importantly, how the programs could actually help them achieve their aspirations. She sees these couples as relational beings who fear social poverty as much as they do economic poverty. They not only experience the strains of limited economic resources, but live on the edge of social impoverishment, as well. A stable, healthy romantic relationship and a stable family are crucial human needs for these individuals – as much as food, housing, childcare, and work – and couples valued the help they received to try to meet this human need and sustain their hope for a stable family. “They want to create a forever family,” Halpern-Meekin writes, “and many feel they could use a helping hand to find their way” (p. 224).

Social policies that take these low-income families’ human aspirations seriously deserve our continued consideration. And based on what she has learned from her study, Halpern-Meekin makes some worthy critiques to try to strengthen public policy to support relationship education.

  • Promote More Relationship Education for Youth and Young Adults. First, Halpern-Meekin rightly encourages greater priority on effective relationship education for youth and young adults to help them understand what healthy relationships look like, how to achieve them, and how to avoid the potholes and detours that will make it harder for them to form lasting, happy unions down the road. That is, the policy should take prevention more seriously, not waiting until couples have already formed bringing along heavy baggage that will make the relationships harder to sustain.
  • Promote Social Connections. Many low-income participants in relationship education programs explicitly value the social connections they form with other participants who are experiencing similar stresses and strains. Not only does it normalize their experiences and takes some of the pressure off their flawed-but-valued relationship, but they benefit directly from the social interactions and connections in the programs. Loneliness and social isolation are epidemics in our contemporary society (as I blogged about earlier here) and relationship education reduces that public health problem. Relationship educators should consciously capitalize on this asset in their curricula by baking in curricular elements designed to build these important social connections, not just deliver knowledge and skills.
  • Promote Ongoing Relationship Maintenance Education. Third, Halpern-Meekin asks for these policies to treat couple relationship education as more of a loading dose than a cure or inoculation. That is, the challenges these couples face are chronic as well as acute, and asking a one-time program to cure all problems long term is asking for a lot, and maybe even too much. Instead, the programs would be more effective if they could build in periodic dosages of relationship education to support ever-changing circumstances and facilitate regular relationship maintenance. Thinking about relationship education as something akin to regular dental checkups may not be as sexy as seeing them as powerful pharmaceuticals that cure a deadly disease, but it is more consistent with the nature of the problem the intervention is seeking to address.

 

Note: A longer version of this blog was first published with the Institute for Family Studies.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Halpern-Meekin, S. (2019). Social poverty: Low-income parents and the struggle for and community ties. New York: New York University Press.

[2] Note that Family Expectations includes both married and unmarried couples. Halpern-Meekin focuses on the unmarried, fragile-family couples in this study.

[3] Heath, M. (2012). One marriage under God: The campaign to promote marriage in America. New York: New York University Press; Randles, J. (2017). Proposing prosperity: Marriage education policy and inequality in America. New York: Columbia University Press.